From LA… At Vroman’s You’ll Learn: You Don’t Know Gypsy

1. Oksana Marafioti signs a copy of her book for fellow writer from Las Vegas, Megan Edwards. In it she writes the original title of her book, “Stay where there are songs.”

Tuesday night at Vroman’s in Pasadena, CA, Oksana Marafioti had her audience entranced with stories told not just from the pages of her book. American Gypsy: A Memoir is your typical coming-of-age tale, mixed with a coming-to-America tale, told by a woman who’s half-Russian/Romani and half-Greek/Armenian, whose family may or may not be burdened with a curse from her great grandmother, due to Marafioti’s out-of-wedlock birth. You know that story, right?

Her dad moved the family from Russia to Hollywood in 1990, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, in hopes of escaping her great grandmother’s curse and getting the chance to perform with B.B King. Her mother had left her husband to follow the two loves in her life: Marafioti’s father, and her passion for performing.

1. Taline and George Khabbaz — Vroman’s regulars — were surprised to find out about Marafioti’s Armenian roots because they are Armenian too. Taline is a poet, and George wants to get extra credit in school for coming to readings. He gets Electric Literature credit. 2. Books always offer a literary hand. Marafioti’s memoir just does it more literally.

The gypsies are a culture that focus a lot on family. Because of their nomadic lifestyles, land is seldom priority, and that’s clear in Marafioti’s story. Hearing her weave together generations of her family history — filled with romance, theatre, music, infidelity, and many languages — would make most Americans feel like they’ve hardly waded in the melting pot of their own family history. Lucky for us, Marafioti likes to embarrass herself sometimes, which led to unscripted accounts of what she learned during her roaming European childhood and years as an American teenager:

— Her first encounter with sex was a well-done porn flick in an underground Soviet Union movie theater.
 — Her second was through American Harlequin novels, attempting to translate English colloquialisms like “quivering loins.”
 — People in Los Angeles pay good money for an exorcism when they know the devil is inside of them, even if they haven’t tried therapy or perhaps a change in diet.
 — Her visual translation of the English phrase “fat-free” on a tub of butter involved orbs of yellow fat floating around boundlessly in the tub. The butter is free.
 — “Gypsy or not, family is family.”

1. Marafioti wags a finger, heeding a warning about the freedom of fat in fat-free butter.

Marafioti conducted most of her research through just talking to her family, and she uncovered more than she set out to. The way her mother tells it, the night she met Marafioti’s father, she was at a Romani performance and saw this man who embodied the cliche of tall, dark, and handsome. Even though he had a woman on each arm, and despite the fact that Marafioti’s mother was married at the time, she knew that she loved him, and they ran away together that night.

Even with her multicultural background, Marafioti said, “I felt more American than anything else for a long, long time.” But now, she embraces all facets of her diverse past, which can sometimes leave her feeling like she has “split nationality disorder.”

In September, Marafioti is going to Washington D.C. for a fellowship with the Library of Congress to research a novel she’s writing about the Armenian/Greek side of her family.

***

— Katelan Cunningham is a stranger in Los Angeles. She’s finding more work as a writer than a designer, and she’s not sure how she feels about it. You can find her here.

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